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Stuart Gallimore: We must do more to protect 'hidden' children

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In May, I wrote about my association’s priorities for 2018-19, promising to shine a brighter spotlight on ‘two of the most complex and vulnerable cohorts of young people’ - vulnerable because they are hidden from sight.

The children who are less visible to us can be broadly split into two groups.

The first are those who aren’t in mainstream education. This may be because they have been excluded from school, legally or illegally, or are educated at home, in unregistered schools or in an alternative provision. The group also includes children experiencing unacceptable delays in admissions processes – an issue for children in care.

The little we know about this cohort comes from reports published in recent years by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner and Ofsted.

45,000 children are known to be home-schooled at present, although this number is likely to be higher. Around 38,000 children are in alternative provision, and Ofsted has also identified 300 schools operating illegally.

Schools do much more than prepare children for academic achievement. They sit at the heart of our communities and help children build resilience, preparing them for independence and adulthood.

They are key to identifying early need and are increasingly taking steps to ‘poverty proof’ the school day: buying clothes for pupils and even sanitary products girls.

The education system should be inclusive, not exclusive. But the association is concerned that increased accountability and heightened competition in the school system, a high stakes inspection regime, ongoing exam and curriculum reforms, and an ever-tighter funding regime are driving exclusion.

As a result, more and more vulnerable pupils are being squeezed out of the mainstream system. We know from government statistics that 40 children a day were excluded from school in 2016-17, up from 35 in 2015-16 and 30 in 2014-15.

Children on free school meals are more vulnerable to exclusion than their peers, as are children with special education needs and disabilities, pupils from some ethnic minorities and children in care. I worry about these children, because being without a school place can expose them to risks like radicalisation or criminal and sexual exploitation.

The second group is smaller in number but arguably more vulnerable. I worry that their health, education and other needs are not adequately met, through no fault of the staff, often doing a remarkable job in difficult circumstances.

These are children and young people in placements that do not properly address their needs because of lack of capacity in other parts of the system. This includes children placed in secure children’s homes who would be better supported via a secure mental health placement, otherwise known as ‘Tier 4’.

Also included in this group are young people in custody. It is fair to say the latest annual report from the Chief Inspector for Prisons highlights that many serving custodial sentences have their needs unmet.

Although there have been some signs of improvements in safety in some justice settings over the past year, children continue to feel unsafe and are spending too much time locked in their cells, in some cases for more than 22 hours a day, and education provision is not always good. We would not accept this reality for children in foster or residential care or for those living with special guardians – it should be no different for the young in custody.

Directors of children’s services are statutorily responsible for all children and young people in an area. But in many cases we must attempt to fulfil our responsibilities with one hand tied behind our backs, relying merely on influence over schools who exclude to improve their league table standing or the private sector owners of justice facilities holding some of the most vulnerable children and young people in the country.

Stuart Gallimore, director of children’s services at East Sussex CC and president, Association of Directors of Children’s Services 2018-19

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